BLOG: What do Liverpool’s statues say about our city?

With Liverpool taking centre stage in a Sky Arts documentary focused on the debate around statues, Mayor Anderson reflects on the importance of instigating a conversation about these city landmarks, and what they mean to us now.

Walking through Liverpool this summer, I was fascinated to see the Queen Victoria statue in Derby Square draped in a colourful hessian dress while William Gladstone’s monument in St John’s Gardens was wrapped in a bright, pan-African flag.

In their new attire, these statues immediately took on new meaning. And they were just two of 50 monuments that were being re-imagined by artists across the city, offering us alternative interpretations and inviting us to question and debate these figures that have become such an unquestionable part of our landscape.

Statues – and their place in our cities today – has been a hotly debated topic since the Black Lives Matter movement last summer and the toppling of the Colston Statue in Bristol. But here in Liverpool, our relationship with statues has always ignited strong feeling. 

Anyone who lived in the city in the 1980s will remember the Toxteth riots. It was during this time that a statue of William Huskisson – a Liverpool MP in the 1800s and supporter of slavery – came crashing down when it was tied to the back of a Cortina car.

Fast-forward to today and we wanted to explore what our statues mean to us now. But it felt like the debate was too polarised and too political. You either wanted to rip them all down and erase any reference of our troubling past, or you wanted to keep and protect them.

Surely there was a better way?

Like so many of these big challenging questions, we turned to artists to offer a different perspective.

Twenty artists were offered a range of statues across the city to temporarily be ‘redressed’ – either with a new outfit – or with artworks which would ask us to question them both as a piece of art and as a monument to an individual and what they did and believed in.

I was lucky enough to take part in one of these re-dressings alongside the artist Sarah Corbett and saw first-hand just how inspiring this idea is. You might not agree with the artists and you might not like what they do to the statues. You might love them. But I guarantee it will get you to think about these pieces differently, as I did.

For me personally, re-dressing our statues felt powerful and symbolic of what we value today. These previously revered figures cannot be erased out of history, and we sadly can’t change the abhorrent events of the past. But what we can do is learn from it, celebrate how far we have come and remain strong in the knowledge that never again will these horrors be repeated.

The people we choose to cast in bronze, or shape from stone, say a huge deal about what we want our societies to be recognised and remembered for.  Who do we want to immortalize – what did they say about our values and what we stood for? Will it make future generations proud to be part of our city?

Statues Redressed is the start of a process for us as a city to think differently about our public statues and to broaden the conversation. The decisions we make as a society today will define us in the future. Let’s make sure they’re the right ones.

Statues redressed was a co-production between the City of Liverpool and Sky Arts. It airs on Sky Arts on Monday 18th October at 9pm.

Liverpool Waterfront